There might as well be playing cards in the hands of the polyglot men and women who are facing one another across white-draped tables in the Delta Hotel ballroom here. Certainly the tactics they're using as they try to draft rules for world trade in genetically altered foods and organisms are familiar to anyone who's ever played a hand of poker.
They raise, they bluff, they try to outwit. They're friends, and at the same time competitors, each trying for a deal that favors his or her home country. Sometimes they joke around, sometimes they trade words that everyone recognizes as insults.
The game--known officially as the resumed session of the First Extraordinary Meeting of the Conference of the Parties for the Adoption of the Protocol on Biosafety--ends Friday night, at exactly what time no one knows. By then, delegates from close to 140 countries here are supposed either to have a deal or go home.
This is day four, and people are starting to get a bit anxious about all that remains to be done. There's been progress on some issues--the rights of countries to maintain their own laws and regulatory systems, for instance. But the great verity of international negotiations is that nothing is settled until everything is settled. And that is only known on the final night.
Virtually every "NGO" (nongovernmental organization, conference-speak for private advocacy group) that cares about genetic engineering is here, buttonholing delegates, printing instant press releases, sometimes venting against people they consider to be on the wrong side of the issue (that usually means American officials).
Earlier in the day, U.S. representatives were no-shows at a meeting with NGOs. That was "just outrageous," declared Sarah Newport of Friends of the Earth International. "It just symbolizes that the U.S. delegation has no interest in hearing what civil society says."
At the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle late last year, some of these groups felt so marginalized they took to the streets with raucous demonstrations. In contrast, this meeting draws their approval. Its purpose after all is to regulate, rather than deregulate, trade. The only question is how stiff the regulation will be.
The American delegation draws fire from many national delegations too. As part of a six-nation faction dubbed the Miami Group after the city of its first meeting, it's fighting an uphill battle against most of the rest of the world to limit the scope of regulation. Miami Group members are big food exporters who make use of genetic technology already; their opposition deadlocked the last big negotiating session, a year ago in Cartagena, Colombia.
Extensive testing has revealed no significant health or environmental problems, U.S. officials contend. Indeed, the products are key to feeding an ever-expanding world population. But opponents, led by the European Union, say it's too soon to rule on the safety of these foods. Pest-resistant grains, for instance, which scientists have created by tinkering with genetic codes, just might pump toxins into the soil, they say.
"It would not be reasonable for anyone to block this [agreement], when such important environmental issues are at stake," said Margot Wallstrom, the European Union's environment commissioner, who brought the environmental ministers of 10 European nations with her to show how seriously Europe takes this. She didn't name names about who might block things, but it sounded a lot like an attack on the United States.
The United States is also up against factions known to everyone as the Like-Minded Group (essentially developing countries) and the Compromise Group (Japan plus others, who often don't seem terribly compromising).
It would have been hard to find an icier venue for this convocation of the world than Montreal in January, but this is where the "secretariat" of the United Nations-sponsored talks is located and this where it scheduled them. Temperatures today hovered around zero. Many of the delegates, from sunny countries near the equator, took the Canadian government up on offers of free loans of military overcoats.
Chairing the conference is Colombia's minister of environment, an affable man named Juan Mayr, who showed up at plenary session of the factions in the ballroom wearing a sporty lime-colored shirt. First order of business, he announced in his booming and less than perfect English: Everyone stand up and hold hands to create good feelings. "Not just three hands," he scolded, seeing that the people around him weren't entering into the spirit. "All hands!"
There followed lengthy presentations from different factions. Language the Americans were backing was really a back-door effort to send disputes to the WTO, complained Christoph Bail, speaking for the EU. A better-safe-than-sorry approach to these products is "sacred," said Beat Nobs of the Compromise Group.
Having determined the key issues of difference, Mayr asked the factions what other concerns they might have. Speaking for the Miami Group was Canadian delegate Richard Ballhorn (the United States can't speak at the sessions, because it did not sign the original convention under which the talks are taking place). He outlined specific suggestions, leading other groups to say they had other problems too.
Mayr seemed to regret asking the question. He sent some groups to meet privately and then return for an evening session. The clock ticked; there were only about 30 hours to go.